Another war casualty: archeology

By ELIZABETH BRYANT, United Press International  |  March 27, 2003 at 1:02 PM
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PARIS, March 27 (UPI) -- Coalition strikes on Iraq appear to have hit at least three important museums, a top U.N. official said Thursday, compounding fears the war may damage one of the Middle East's richest archeological troves.

"Of course, it's quite difficult to make an assessment of the situation," Mounir Bouchenaki, assistant director general for culture at the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said in an interview with United Press International.

"But we have been informed by different sources in the press, and from correspondents on the spot, that several museums have been hit during this recent period of war."

The museums reportedly hit in bombings included that in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit; and in the ancient, northern Iraqi city of Mosul. According to experts, Mosul's regional museum contains irreplaceable sculptures, tablets and other key artifacts dating back centuries before Jesus Christ.

A third museum, housing more recent treasures of Iraq's royal family, was hit during the first night of strikes on Saddam's palaces in Baghdad, Bouchenaki said.

The fears of further destruction bring back memories of damage inflicted during the Afghan conflict a year ago.

Both countries are considered crossroads of ancient civilizations, centuries-old hubs of trade and war. But Iraq houses a richer and larger slice of cultural history, experts say.

Known as the Fertile Crescent, Iraq is the land of Babylon, the biblical Garden of Eden and of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. Chances of these and other treasures being pillaged or destroyed have alarmed archeologists for months.

Earlier this month, the Archeological Institute of American expressed concern that military conflict might not only destroy key archeological sites, but also lead to vast amounts of looting, as witnessed during the Gulf War in 1991.

A month ago, too, UNESCO sent a map of key Iraqi archeological sites to the U.S. government, along with a list of museums and other sites. The U.N. organization has also alerted Interpol, and major museum and commerce groups against chances of pillage.

"We have received many assurances by the U.S. delegation that they have taken into account all the information we have provided on the museums and sites," Bouchenaki said. "And the military population has been informed not to hit these locations. But, of course, we are very worried."

So like millions of people around the world these days, Bouchenaki and other archeological experts are keeping a worried watch on television news and the newspapers, tracing troop movements.

Basra, for example, has a section dating to the 15th century, along with several important old churches, Bouchenaki said. Baghdad has mementos of the time it reigned as the capital of the vast Abbasid Caliphate, between the 8th-13th centuries.

But many of Iraq's treasures are still unexcavated, presenting a potential crop of bigger worries.

"Experts estimate Iraq has about 1,000 archeological sites, and only about 100 have been excavated," Bouchenaki said. "When you are traveling in the countryside and you see just a small elevation of earth, its almost 100 percent certain there is an archeological site below."

Bouchenaki credits the Iraqi government for "a lot of support" in preserving the country's archeological sites, and also for cracking down on post-war looting a decade ago.

Now, international experts must grapple with historical preservation in a post-Saddam Iraq.

"As soon as the situation permits, we'll evaluate and prepare an action plan," Bouchenaki said. "Our feeling is this heritage not only belongs to Iraqis. It's the heritage of all humanity."

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